What Makes a Good Prayer? Part Two

Prayer and Pilgrimage

How have you been praying this month? In the last blog post  we looked at how intention, mental and physical health, and location can all affect your prayer life. Have you noticed any differences? Are you more aware of what works and what is lacking in your prayer life?

Today we ponder about the physicality of prayer, and then move onto the mental/spiritual aspects. Although we might assume that prayer is primarily a spiritual activity, I find that paying attention to the body is the first step in becoming more comfortable and consistent in prayer.

What is your body doing?

Don’t under estimate the importance of the body during prayer. A priest once told me that the most vital thing to understand about prayer is that you must learn to breathe before you can do it. It sounds obvious, but this isn’t too different from meditation or mindfulness training. When I’m praying I take a few deep breaths first to calm down and to force my body to relax. Breathing steadily and relaxing your muscles will actually shift the focus away from your body by allowing you to enter a more peaceful state.

Your posture is important too. I personally don’t want to feel uncomfortable, but I do want to feel as though I’m doing something significantly different from the rest of my day. This is why I like to pray whilst kneeling on a cushion or something soft. For me, kneeling encapsulates a submission to the Divine that doesn’t pull my attention away from praying due to discomfort.

There are so many other ways that the body can either help or hinder prayer – as I mentioned last time, feeling ill can affect your prayer life but so can smaller bodily changes such as feeling full or hungry, tried or wide awake, cold or warm. The thing to remember is to work out what makes you feel relaxed enough to enter deep prayer, but not so relaxed that you will fall asleep. This also involves working out how your body prevents prayer, and what you can do to overcome that. Some people like to walk when they’re praying, some lie down and some people like to be constantly moving – these are all valid ways of using your body to aid prayer.

Reflection: how does your body feel when you pray? Does your body ever distract you from praying? What changes can you make that will stop your body from distracting you? What position or posture helps you to pray better? How can you use your body to aid your prayer life?

What physical aids are you using?

Prayer beads, a small cross, or just a pebble can help if like me you’re inclined to fidgeting. I like to hold rosary beads because it gives my hands something to do so they aren’t distracting me. Aside from things to hold there are myriad things you can use to help you focus – writing your prayers in a notebook, walking a labyrinth, lighting a candle to look at, or some incense to smell – all these things can get you in the right frame of mind to pray. By creating a routine that is different from the rest of your day you’ll soon get used to slipping into prayer by associating the physical element with praying.

Reflection: What one thing could help aid you in prayer? Do you need something to keep your hands, your legs, or your whole body busy?  Could you use something to create a positive association with prayer? Which of your senses could you stimulate to create a routine of prayer?

What is your mind doing?

Now we get to what is often considered the crux of prayer – what your own thoughts and emotions are doing. When I first became a Christian I thought that sincerity was the most important part of praying; that I had to really feel it before a prayer counted. The cycle of trying to feel something and then worrying about not feeling the right things soon became exhausting. Until I was told something incredibly liberating: that if you are intending to pray, you are praying.

So, all our mental struggles when praying are prayers in themselves. When we worry that we can’t concentrate, when we get distracted by a sound nearby, when we don’t know what we’re doing – as long as we are intending to pray then we are praying even in these moments.

So rather than worrying about if you are feeling or doing prayer right, try to focus on your desire to pray, or your desire to be consistent in prayer. Once you’re not worrying about it so much, entering deep prayer becomes easier.

Now think about what you are mentally or verbally saying. Are you going to recite a rote prayer? Do you pray using your mind’s eye? Are you content to pray by being silent? There is no easy formula I can give here that will tell you what the mental or spiritual aspect of prayer is like because it varies so much from person to person. Some people will tell you to push away day to day thoughts and concentrate on God, others will say that those day to day thoughts are exactly what you should be bringing before God. Some people will advise specific formulas to follow during prayer, others insist that prayer should be silently waiting for God to speak. Try and work out for yourself what you want prayer to feel like, what you want to be mentally doing, and think back to last week’s question about what your intention in praying is.

Reflection: For now focus on getting the physical aspects or prayer right for you, get into a routine, and focus on your intention to pray. Once you’re used to this ask yourself the following questions: What content do I want my prayers to have? How do I want to feel after I’ve prayed? What do I think my duty is in prayer?

There is so much more that could be said about prayer, but I hope that these reflections have prompted some initial thoughts about your own prayer life. Try out some types of prayer that you haven’t experienced before, experiment with praying in different places and with different people. And remember that if you are trying to pray, then you already are praying.